Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The blog was written in the passive voice...

Active voice vs. passive voice is one of those things that I'd heard bantered about, but never truly understood.  I gathered that it was a way of writing and that it was preferable to write actively as opposed to passively.  That's about as far as I ever got.

According to Wiki:

The passive voice is a grammatical voice in which the subject receives the action of a transitive verb. Passive voice emphasizes the process rather than who is performing the action.

But what does that mean?  I didn't really know.  So I did a little homework and found out that active voice is when someone does something to something.  Passive is when something happens to something else, possibly by someone.  And yes, there is a difference!  Examples:

Active – John picked up the paper
Passive – The paper was picked up (by John – optional)

Notice how when using the active voice, John is the subject.  John is doing something to something.  It's direct.  He picked up the paper.  The sentence revolves around John and what he's doing.  Go John!
When switching to passive, the paper is now the subject.  Something is happening to the paper.  The paper isn't doing anything.  It's just sitting there waiting for something to happen to it.  John is optional at this point.  Who needs John anyway?

Passive voice is used more in business and/or scientific papers.  Like when writing about a reaction to some chemical interacting with another, example:

Active - Charlie poured the chemical over the other, causing a reaction.  (Charlie is causing the reaction by pouring)
Passive – Chemical A was poured over Chemical B, causing a reaction. (Now it's Chemical A's fault that Chemical B reacted)

In the above example, the chemicals and their reactions have more significance than who actually poured one over the other, so poor Charlie being left out is probably a good thing in the scientific world.  Here it would be better to go with passive voice.
There are many more examples where passive is used, but I'm going to try to stick to fiction.

Speaking of fiction, it's usually better to go with the active voice.  Most stories are character driven to an extent.  Switching to passive voice keeps focus on objects and away from the characters and what they are doing.  Example:

Active – John picked up the lamp and threw it against the wall.
Passive – The lamp was picked up and thrown against the wall (by John – optional).

The active example is very violent.  We can tell that John is mad about something and taking out his frustrations on the innocent lamp.  (We've shown he's angry without having to say so, but more on that in future posts!) The focus is on John and his actions.  The lamp is secondary.  It could have been anything that John happened to be close to.  Just happened to be a lamp.
The passive example loses some of its umph.  We don't really get that John was upset, but more that the lamp got smashed to smithereens.  It's all about the lamp.  The fact that John threw it is inconsequential.  In essence, you just took a possible main character and made him take backstage to a lamp.  Must be some lamp! Maybe it's Tiffany's…

So, passive is bad, very bad.  Must never write in the passive voice! Never ever!

This is where my brain started whirring like it usually does when I hear the word "Never".  As a story teller, what if you WANT the focus to be on the lamp?  What if John IS inconsequential?
What if Mary owns the lamp and it's her most prized possession?  John is just some random guy who happens to be there and we're never going to see him again.  He doesn't even have any lines!  He just comes in and smashes the lamp and leaves Mary heartbroken.  In this case the lamp really is more important than John in the grand scheme of things.  Who cares about John and his anger management issues when Mary's priceless lamp has been smashed?!

It brings me back to the infamous example:

Active – The car struck the child.
Passive – The child was struck by the car.

Which is more important?  The car or the child?  On which do you want to put more emphasis?  I'm sure if you were the child or a parent then you'd put more emphasis on the passive version.  Even though it's passive, it's more emotional and dramatic.

So how do you go about finding out if you are using passive voice?  There's always going to be a form of the "to be" verb.  Examples:

The lamp was thrown
The lamp will be thrown
The lamp is being thrown
The lamp had been thrown
The lamps were thrown
The lamps have been thrown

If you are writing in the past tense, do a search for "was".  A lot of times, you'll find some passive voice strewn in the midst if you find "was".

Now, here's what I really learned.  There's nothing wrong with passive voice.  It's grammatically correct and as long as you use it correctly, it's fine.
However…same as with 'ly adverbs, you can do better.  Let's take a few of the examples above and rewrite them, but keep the same meaning:

The lamp was thrown against the wall.

What do we really want to point out here?  We want to point out that Mary's prized lamp is being smashed.  So why are we focusing on the lamp again?  Don't we really want to focus on Mary's feelings?

Mary watched in horror as John threw her prized lamp against the wall.

Or even the less flowery/purple prose version:

Mary watched her lamp hit the wall.

How about:

The child was struck by the car.

The child's face filled with terror as the car's tires screeched on the pavement in an attempt to stop in time.

Or the even less flowery/purple prose version:

The child went limp as the car hit her.

Either example, the direct one or the purple prose version brings more to the story than what the passive example brought.  Focus was brought back to the main character and how they were feeling/reacting.  Each example was more dramatic and descriptive.

Long story short, passive isn't evil, but just because it's not evil doesn't mean it can't be rewritten into something even better.

No comments:

Post a Comment